Review: Leslie Jordan

Well, queens, it doesn’t get much better — or much gayer — than Leslie Jordan’s one-man show. Leslie, who describes himself as “the gayest man I know,” also claims that he was put on this Earth to be a comic scene-stealer (who met his only match playing opposite Megan Mullally on Will & Grace). This innate gift gives the fey, diminutive Jordan more than enough power to thoroughly command a stage all by himself.

He looks at the profound self-doubt that comes with growing up queer and hyper-effeminate in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the booze and drugs he used to overcome that doubt. As emotional as things might get, though, a laugh is never far off in this show. Like in the outlandish report of “how I got that role,” namely Beverly Leslie in Will & Grace: he describes his Emmy win for that role in great and hilariously self-deprecating detail. There’s plenty of dish about Hollywood: No outing – he describes John Ritter as “a great friend to the queers but a reeeaal pussyhound” – but we definitely get the lowdown on who has a legendary dick that Leslie repeatedly begs to see…and who will sue you for looking at them wrong.

This isn’t just a laugh-so-hard-you-cry look at the world through ultra-queer eyes (though it is that in spades), it’s also an often moving look at the very best and worst of what queer culture has to offer. Most moving of all, he describes how he threw all of his emotion about both his father and the lives lost in the Pulse nightclub massacre into throwing the first pitch at a baseball game. He threw with such passion that one of the pros said he could have had a career as a pitcher.

I can’t think of another autobiographical show that is more pure, unadulterated fun than Exposed! — it makes a convincing case for Jordan being one of the very greatest queer comic talents of our time.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Lisa Loeb

Singer / songwriter Lisa Loeb may still be best known for the 1994 song that made her famous – “Stay (I Missed You)” from the film Reality Bites – but she has been steadily writing and recording ever since. And she’s utterly charming. Loeb’s stage presence is among the most engaging I’ve seen in a cabaret, and that makes her new show at the Café Carlyle a very enjoyable one indeed.

Loeb’s song catalog seems to have two main registers; first, very sincere and simple songs, including some children’s songs, and, second, more intricate songs that show the influence of the likes of Suzanne Vega. I was surprised to discover that, while I remembered “Stay” as a simple song, it really belongs in the latter more ambitious category, and has really stood the test of time.

About three quarters through the show, after singing “Stay,” Loeb takes requests, and I was interested that the songs were more generally for her more writerly stuff like “Dance with the Angels” and most compellingly “Hurricane” – it’s a matter of personal taste, but I think this is the side of Loeb I enjoy more.

All this is not to say that the simpler side of her repetoire is innately inferior. Indeed, the children’s song “The Dissapointing Pancake” was one of the evening’s highlights. She also does a handful of covers, where she reveals that her charm isn’t limited to between-song talk, but extends to the way she interprets the words of a classic like Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Antonia Bennett

In the best possible way, Antonia Bennett is musically every bit Tony Bennett’s daughter. She has down cold the kind of laid-back jazz-inflected gently swinging phrasing that her father perfected more than any other artist. If anything, her rhythmic sense is even a touch more sophisticated, which makes her tendency towards bossa nova arrangements so pleasing.

Again like the elder Bennett, Antonia is the furthest thing from musically flashy. She, too, exemplifies the virtues of subtlety, precision and seamless elegance. Her ability to communicate the meaning of a song comes less from anything to do with storytelling or acting, and more from a refined sense of what musicality can express all by itself, be it in the turn of a phrase, a slightly syncopated hesitation or any number of similar things.

Her set list is exclusively from the Great American Songbook, with a strong emphasis on Gershwin. She is ably supported by a skilled jazz trio, whose approach is every bit as subtle and measured as her own.

Bennett shows great musical confidence, and on stage she projects a warm, sweet charm rather than magnetic charisma. This works for the intimate setting of cabaret, though some witty scripted patter and theatrical shaping certainly would give her winsome appeal a better frame. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Chita Rivera

Every time you see Chita Rivera, you learn a lesson about performing. How to make an announcement about your legs with a piece of fabric. How to “make a huge entrance” when you have in fact been discreetly hidden in plain sight on stage for five minutes. In the case of her current cabaret act at the Café Carlyle, I learned why her, Liza Minnelli and other dancers favor sequined pantsuits; they are to dancers’ bodies what orchestrations are to a piano score: they amplify and glorify even the smallest movement. And Chita’s body needs amplification for the movements she makes in the small 2 feet by 4 feet area allowed her on the tiny Carlyle stage.

That said, those sequins are just razzle-dazzle in the service of an already great theatrical presence. She holds nothing back in this act, this diva is cutting loose as only she can. When she sang “Where Am Going” from Sweet Charity, she shed new light for me not only on that song, but on all of Sweet Charity. I understand the song now as an existential awakening for an already worldly woman, and the show as almost as profound as the Fellini film that inspired it.

Chita was always at her best playing “existential musical comedy” and thus became the muse for people with that aesthetic, first Bob Fosse, but then, more deeply, Fred Ebb and John Kander. No shock then that the majority of songs in the show come from a collaboration with either Fosse or Kander & Ebb.

She almost launches into “All That Jazz,” the most spectacular of her many signature Kander & Ebb numbers, at the top of the show. When she finally does it as her finale, it’s more than satisfying, it’s positively gratifying.

Chita never falters. About the worst I can say is that she didn’t sing the entirety of “America” from West Side Story. I am a Leonard Bernstein fanatic, this is his centennial and “America” is one of my most beloved Bernstein songs. Chita sings the hell out of her “America” fragment, leaving someone like me begging for more. But that would be greedy with all the artistic riches on display here. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Jackie Hoffman gets entrance applause!! That just tells me that some things are right in the world, even with all the daily head-slapping news. Of course, this is due mostly to her big role in TV’s Feud as Joan Crawford maid Mamacita, but she is just as much fun as the permanently sozzled Mrs. Teevee in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

This musical is based on the children’s book of the same name, as was the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. While the show uses a couple of beloved songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse from the film, the majority of the colorful and exuberant score is by Hairspray scribes Marc Shaiman (composer) and Scott Wittman (lyricist). The story (if somehow you’re not aware) follows chocolate-loving child Charlie Bucket as he longs for a “golden ticket” to tour master chocolatier Willy Wonka’s factory.

Shaiman’s music is charming – full of tasty licks as usual – and you can’t spell Wittman without “wit.” It is most unfortunate that muddy sound design often obscures those witty lyrics. Christian Borle portrays Wonka with his usual élan, with somewhat more humanity than previous incarnations. Director Jack O’Brien has presented a smaller-scale production than Sam Mendes on the West End, and while I’m not sure that was the right decision, it’s still sufficiently splashy and vivid. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: The Little Foxes

This is easily the most entertaining serious play I’ve seen so far this Broadway season. Plays like Oslo and Indecent may be more insightful, even edifying, but Lillian Hellman’s 1939 poisoned chestnut The Little Foxes has far more spicy melodrama. Sure, those other plays don’t exactly fail at entertainment, and Foxes does have some serious issues on its mind, but the reason to see it is exactly the same reason you watch a suspensefully-plotted soap opera.

Set in 1900 Alabama, The Little Foxes follows Regina Giddens – a template for Alexis Carrington, without a doubt – and her conniving brothers as they claw and scratch their way towards wealth and power. Caught in the middle, among others, are Regina’s cultured and much-abused sister-in-law Birdie and Regina’s principled but deathly ill husband Horace.

In a bit of stunt casting, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon trade off playing Regina and Birdie (a smaller but still quite juicy role). The night I saw it, Linney was a steely marvel as Regina, and Nixon heartbreakingly vulnerable and sincere as Birdie.

Either way director Daniel Sullivan has crafted a production so rock-solid, and intelligently observed in its details, that any skilled actor would feel secure and supported. Set designer Scott Pask delivers a drawing room that has exactly the right feeling of severe, effortful elegance. Costume designer Jane Greenwood nails the armor-like padded crispness needed to convey Regina’s intimidatingly powerful presence.

The supporting cast is every bit as potent as the leads. Richard Thomas gives the ill Horace a wounded gravitas which makes him a worthy opponent for Regina even in his diminished state. Michael McKean brings disturbing warmth to mastermind brother Ben, and Darren Goldstein shows us the insecurity behind brother Oscar’s bluster (to great effect). At its core, The Little Foxes is a ripping yarn and this production gives that full play. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: War Paint

Some of Broadway’s most solid craftsmen worked on War Paint, and it shows. Most of the creative team previously worked on Grey Gardens, and while this isn’t up to the caliber of that show, it’s still pretty darn good. War Paint follows the decades-long rivalry of cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), who between them defined beauty standards for the first half of the 20th Century.

The score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie evokes all kinds of music from the 1930s through the 1960s, with generous doses of big band-style swing. Doug Wright’s book, together with Korie’s lyrics, uses the fierce competition between these two female titans of industry to examine their differences, but more importantly to shed light on the similar challenges they both faced in the male-dominated business world.

Of course, the main draw is seeing not one but two living legends in the lead roles. The songs for Ebersole and LuPone go beyond intelligently painting the personalities of the two main characters – they are as exquisitely tailored for their talents as are their glamorous Catherine Zuber-designed outfits. This is nowhere more apparent than in their twin 11 O’Clock numbers. When Christine finishes her song “Pink” – as pure Ebersole as anything Frankel and Korie gave her in Grey Gardens – it’s hard to imagine they could top it. And they don’t, exactly – Patti’s “Forever Beautiful” is more of a lateral move, just as astonishing a number, and ideal for LuPone.

It’s very well-crafted, but not perfect: There are moments when the dramatic tension goes a bit slack, until our heroines have a new historical problem to face. It’s an inherent weakness of most historically-based theatre, and therefore one I am quick to forgive. For the most part, War Paint is smart and marvelously stylish entertainment. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.